Jigsaw (**) – Disposable Morality

JigsawJigsaw – 2017

Directors The Spierig Brothers
Screenplay by Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Starring Tobin Bell, Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Clé Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson

It takes a good riff to hook one on a franchise, bad or good. The first Halloween is one of the greatest films of all time, making me a willing sucker for each subsequently horrible entry. I keep thinking it will get better. SAW was a film I didn’t think all that great the first time. The ending was clever, and the depictions of gruesome death tied to hollow morality goes back to Scrooge. That term “torture porn” was berthed with this franchise should tell you everything you need to know about this series. But there’s so much less.

The thing that hamstrings the franchise past episode one is the characters are as entirely disposable as the plot makes them to be. We find vignettes of mostly bland people in distress, in a prime position to die horribly. There is some sort of device that elicits a message from the master of their current position telling them what it is they need to do in order to stay living. It doesn’t promise them that they’ll be comfortable in their possible future existence.

Outside of their prison is even worse in terms of acting. We bounce between flashbacks of those prisoners affecting the life of John “Jigsaw” Kramer in a negative fashion and some extremely bland investigators.  Following both plot lines and their obvious tells is almost always more painful than watching the torturous deaths to which we are chained.

Almost every one of these actors are people you’ll never remember, but for how much they annoy. There are exceptions to these rules. Danny Glover, Shawnee Smith, Ken Leung and especially Donnie Wahlberg added something to the series. Cary Elwes was at least an even trade.

One of the weak points for the series is Bell’s divergent character who is suffering on one side and applying the pain on the other. He’s always played as a reluctant benefactor. It worked to begin with, but by the time they had him on the operating table it was more funny than anything.

This time, ten years gone, we’re supposed to buy the idea that he’s somehow escaped the grave and put one of his fresh victims in the box. Seeing him mope around, viewing and judging from a distance is a threadbare concept now. It’s to the point where its a wonder if he ever saw any simple kindness in his life.

If I never mention any of the acting talent in this film, I would say it ranks right up there along side, say anything produced for Lifetime or SyFy. The toughest part working through these films is fighting the thought that you literally hope most of these characters will die at least as horribly as their acting ability.

For those who like this series, this one will rank somewhere near the middle when it comes to what they want. There are some Fangoria-worthy moments. Most others that are somewhat less inspired. The logic and moral authority is thinner than ever. You really have to reach to find the reasoning even partly valid. The twist at the end has been done a few times by now and it will not resonate at all when compared to even SAW 3D.

It’s understandable that this franchise could go on forever and for no real reason other than people like to see mishaps with painful contraptions. If they really wanted to work as hard at scaring you, they’d work on your mind as much as the eyes.

Which brings us back to the first film. Do more stuff like that. Which is to say, tell unique stories.

(** out of *****)

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Insidious: Chapter 3 (***) – Come on, you gotta try at least a little

Insidious-Chapter-3-Movie

Insidious: Chapter 3 – 2015

Writer and Director Leigh Whannell
Starring Lin Shaye, Dermot Mulroney, Stefanie Scott, Angus Sampson, Whannell, Hayley Kiyoko, Tate Berney, Michael Reid MacKay, Tom Gallup

 So I love ghost stories. I just do. And as many times as I have seen films that just don’t do it, I keep going back. Insidious Chapter 3 is a tepid tale designed to fit right into the PG-13 slot. It’s nothing really special, even if it is good enough to give one a few minor scares and a knowing nod at the absurd prolonging of a character (Elise, played by Shaye) who they foolishly killed off in the first one. The first sequel found a pretty cool way to keep her in the picture, giving her ground to cover from the after life.

They didn’t want to mine that resource yet again, so instead we get a prequel happening an indeterminate amount of time before the events of the first 2 parts (not counting the brilliant 1986 flashback). A girl named Quinn (Scott, in a role that does her credit) seeks out the help of Elise in speaking to her deceased mother. After explaining that she recently retired from the séance business (we find out later), Elise gives it a shot, but shuts down soon into the effort. Dejected but not deterred, Quinn resumes her life and efforts to communicate with her mother, unheeding of Elise’s dire warning to not try this by herself at home.

Soon enough we get a glimpse of what is communicating with Quinn. It isn’t her mother. It is yet another demonic force that is trying to collect Quinn’s unsuspecting innocence in to its apartment building of horrors. While Elise ponders her navel and frets over her recent losses, she gets a whiff, Jedi-style, of Quinn’s pending misfortune. Meanwhile, Quinn’s dad doesn’t waste unnecessary time wondering if her daughter is imagining things. That’s one cliché avoided. Hooray for our side.

As things get rolling, the film loses steam. There’s only so much one can do in a prequel. For those who enjoy Shaye having her own franchise, she has some nice moments. It’s easy to see there being more films taking place before the events of the first installment. It would be even more interesting if they involve Quinn. It’s hard to imagine this series rising to new heights with the box they’ve built for themselves. Once they break that box, all hell could break loose too.

(*** out of *****)

Insidious, Chapter 2: I’m a boy…

insidious-2-movie

Insidious Chapter 2 – 2013

Director James Wan
Starring Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Steve Coulter, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Danielle Bisutti, Tom Fitzpatrick
Screenplay Whannell

Insidious Chapter 2 is one of the rare sequels that makes the original better.  The thing about the first chapter is that there were so many questions at the end of the film, no one really knew what had happened or why.  We only knew that there was an entity (or a few) that followed Josh Lambert and now his son Dalton.  The ending gave the impression that Josh made the ultimate sacrifice to free his son, and in doing so, allowed renewed access to life for the horrible entity that took over his body.  This entity kills Elise, the paranormal investigator who knew what was happening and now presumably walks free.

The new story starts off before the last one starts.  We see Josh as a little boy, near the time when he started encountering the ghastly entities.  We see and hear a younger version of Elise, Josh’s mom and a new guy named Carl.  The experiences they encounter are spooky, but leave even more questions.  Don’t worry though, we get answers to those questions and a bunch more.

Many of the best parts of the new story recall seemingly unanswered events earlier, whether the second story or the first.  Along the way, we discover more seemingly disconnected events that tell the more aware among us to be aware.  So much information passes through the scenes, it’s harder to discern what to keep and what to discard.  Don’t worry, though.  If it’s not covered right away, they will make it clear later.

Cross dimensional sight
Cross dimensional sight

The story moves from place to place, ratcheting the tension.  Lorraine (Hershey) is seeking an answer to what is happening to her son.  She calls on the paranormal team of Specs and Tucker (writer Whannell and Sampson), who lead her to Carl.  Renai (Byrne)  encamped in the midst of the mystery, trying to protect her children and making a further effort to communicate with her increasingly detached husband.  Unlike the first story, Josh is physically there much of the time. Something off, that she can sense, but lacks the conviction to do anything about.  Her boy Dalton is still able to communicate with other dimensions, and he makes good use of it at some point.

In their research, Lorraine, Carl, Specs and Tucker discover the connection to the past for young Josh.  The revelations dovetail nicely with other events.  It’s easy to appreciate the amount of imagination piecing together the parts of the puzzle.  Storylines that would have flailed on their own add up to something more in the hands of Whannell and Wan.  The scare tactics are nothing new, usually someone walking past the camera out of the protagonist’s view or someone in another dimension noticing another protagonist out of the blue.

When these methods are combined with the developing plot, the effect is somewhat mesmerizing.  The characters are nicely moved forward in the plot, too, giving the viewer more to be invested in.  As a sequel, this is more developed than most, with little wasted opportunity.

Carl, played with a remarkable frailty by Coulter,  is a damaged and sensitive middle-aged man.  His is the rare character portrayal in a scary film.  He is filled with fear but is brave.  I appreciated his vantage point more than anything else in the film.  He moves the story forward, even with our fears on his back.

Carl's big surprise
Carl’s big surprise

If you haven’t jumped in yet, this would be a fine place to start.  The ending is a pretty good jump off point for a new story.  It’s unclear whether they can successfully weave another story into the mix here, but I would like to see them try.

(**** out of *****)